So I talked to you earlier about the new covenant that God promises to the
people of Israel while they are in Exile. Jeremiah shares an interesting image
– rather than engraving the law on stone tablets God will now engrave the law
on our hearts. We won’t have to try to learn it, or teach it, it will just be
there – guiding us.
Jeremiah’s vision is an amazing word of hope in times of evil and
injustice. The days are surely coming, when people will no longer be confused
about good and evil. It is certain, it will happen, people will be guided by
what is right and just. God will make a new covenant with us, and this one will
be written on our hearts.
As I was researching this sermon, I found this reflection from Anne Lamott.
“There’s a lovely Hassidic story of a rabbi who always told his people that if
they studied the Torah, it would put scripture on their hearts. One of them
asked, ‘Why ON our hearts, and not IN them?’ The rabbi answered, ‘Only God can
put Scripture inside. But reading sacred text can put it on your hearts, and
then when your hearts break, the holy words will fall inside.’”
When I first read that story, it was clear that the rabbi was talking about
this scripture passage from Jeremiah. But I was not sure where to go with it. I
knew that it would take further thought. I mean, what is the difference between
having the covenant on our hearts instead of in our hearts. Why did the student
ask the rabbi that? Why did it matter to him?
It is such a small difference, that difference between on and in. It is one
of the most difficult things to learn when you are learning a different
For example, I was an exchange student in Germany, so I learned rather
quickly that in German you don’t stand in a field. People think that is funny,
because it means you are buried up to your neck in the field. Rather, you stand
on a field, on the top of it.
But we don’t think of it that way. We think of being in the field, like we
are standing within its borders, while if I told you a farmer were standing on
his field, you would understand me, but you think it sounded strange. Why would
I need to tell you he was on top of it? I mean, if he weren’t on top of it, if
he were under it, that would imply something very different in English! Poor
Farmer Fred is six feet under his field.
The difference between in and on in this example is quite slight, and yet
somehow to each of our languages it is important. Likewise for this student of
the rabbi, the difference was probably slight but significant.
So I thought more deeply about it. If I say that you and your family have
been on my heart, what does that mean?
I think it means I am thinking about you. I have been feeling drawn to you,
as if I should reach out to you. It is a yearning, a desire, a need for
But if I say that you and your family are in my heart, it sounds
like the connection is more continual: like I am always carrying you with me,
that our emotional link is always there.
And perhaps that is what the student was getting at: he or she didn’t just
want to yearn for scripture or just have a desire for connection with it; but
the student wanted scripture to be carried around within their heart at all
times, to be always linked.
So I think that explains the student’s question, but then there is the
rabbi’s answer, which explains that while studying the scripture can put it on
our heart, only God can put it in our hearts. And then he talks about how we
read scripture until our hearts break, and then the holy words fall inside. And
again, I was sure that rabbi was thinking about this passage in Jeremiah, so I
looked at it again as well.
And the word that most helped me, was the word that God uses for how these
words will be put upon our hearts. The phrase used is “I will engrave them on
their hearts.” Engrave.
What do you engrave words on? [expect answer of stone] Engraving is
something you do to write on that which is hard, that which is resistant to
When we read scripture, it is engraved upon our hearts. And the process of permanent
change begins, but it is not completed, because our hearts are still hard, they
are still stone. But God can cause a change, and I think the rabbi is referring
to Ezekiel 36:26, where God says, “I will give you a new heart and put a new
spirit in you. I will remove your stony heart from your body and replace it
with a living one, and I will give you my spirit so that you may walk according
to my regulations and carefully observe my case laws.”
In a sense, I think that is what the rabbi meant by our heart breaking. When
he says our hearts break, I don’t think he meant it like we think of some lover
with broken heart, I think he may have meant when our stony hearts break, when
we allow them to become softened with love, when they become alive and shed the
stony exterior, then the words get inside, and then we can carry them with us
all the time. Then our connection with them is constant and complete.
After struggling for a while with the passage, that made sense, imagine the
stone heart, where God writes a new covenant on the outside, and these words slowly
cause the stone to erode and crumble until our hearts are flesh. But just
reading the scripture, even though it is amazing can’t do that. The change of
heart is so drastic, that to really soften us, to break away the stone, requires
God’s help. Then the new covenant can be lived. I think that is what the rabbi
is trying to tell the students.
The interesting thing is, I don’t think we are born with stone hearts. I
think we build them up over time. People hurt us, friends disappoint us, and
slowly layer after layer our hearts become stone. Kind of like the process of
an oyster creating a pearl. Only our stone heart isn’t very pretty. It starts
with an irritant and we try to protect ourselves. We don’t like to get hurt. So
we try to shelter our emotions, and we prevent ourselves from loving others
like God does.
Glynnis Whitwer writes in a devotion on Proverbs31.org, “My daughter
Cathrine held out her hands, palms up, for her brother to see. "Look, I
have bumps on my hands ... what are they from?"
Robbie ran his fingers over her palms and answered with the authority of an
older brother, "These are calluses, you got them from lifting weights at
school. Look at mine."
He turned his hands over, and she ran her fingers over his palms and
My children's hands are a resume of their work in the gym. Calluses formed
to protect their tender skin from harm as they lift weights.
I sat at the table, watching the interaction, and then looked at my hands.
Smooth palms and short nails revealed my hardest workouts came at the keyboard,
not the gym. But a thought skirted in and around my mind: Where else might
calluses have formed?
Turning back to my computer, my eyes stared out the window and my fingers
stilled on the keys as an image came to mind. My heart ... covered in calluses.
I closed my eyes and sighed. That explained a lot. My heart is harder than
it used to be. And sadly, much harder than I'd like it to be.
It's easy to see how I've gotten here. Each time I've been hurt, my
approach to dealing with pain has been stoic. The warrior-like determination
inside me to protect myself had affected the softness of my heart. With each
offense, each lie, each rejection, I made a silent declaration to not be hurt
like that again.
… My empathy was diminished, which is a very dangerous heart-position for
someone whom God has called to love others.
I'm convinced these calluses aren't supposed to stay there. A callused
heart may protect me from great pain, but it also keeps me from great love. To
love deeply, to love like Jesus, requires risk.
Boy Oh Boy, do I get what Glynnis has written here. My heart has callouses!
Yet, this passage is talking about the cure for those callouses, that opens us
up to loving God and others like we are supposed to. As though one day we are
insensitive and incapable of loving like God does. Our hearts are
self-centered, they keep everyone except family and a few closer friends at a
distance. We can hear about loving our neighbor, but it just doesn’t soak into
us. The stone prevents us from changing.
But as time passes we learn to see all people like God does, and we realize
that they are connected to us. And the stone is broken away. We allow others
into our lives, we carry them with us. And slowly this circle of people grows,
until we love everyone as our neighbor.
God promises that this will happen to us. It starts with reading scripture,
until the words will be written on our hearts. But then comes the miracle as
God softens our hearts and the words will fall into their depths. On that day
God’s promise will be fulfilled in us, “The days are surely coming when we will
no longer need to teach each other, because they will all know me, from the least
to the greatest, and I will forgive their wrongdoing and never again remember
Lamott, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith